Dunedin is known as one of the best wildlife-spotting locations in New Zealand. Read our guide to find out why Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula are considered a must-visit destination for animal lovers and birders.
New Zealand’s native wildlife is one of the most astounding things about the country. The quirky creatures endemic to this set of reasonably remote islands are often elusive, so to get a glimpse, a trip to Dunedin – New Zealand’s wildlife capital – is in order.
If David Attenborough is a fan, then you know you’re onto a good thing.
Dunedin is a small, hilly, harbour city surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. Its south-eastern position and temperate climate makes it the perfect spot for wildlife spotting. Here, animals and birds seek out the secluded beaches and bush found all along the coastline.
It’s home to some of New Zealand’s rarest and most-endangered animals, including yellow-eyed penguins, northern royal albatross, little blue penguins, New Zealand fur seals and Hooker sea lions.
And what’s even more remarkable…
You’ll find most of these animals living within minutes of civilisation, although some are shyer than others.
Explore the world-famous Otago Peninsula
The Otago Peninsula, which extends out from central Dunedin, is a world-renowned eco-tourism and wildlife destination.
It is home to amazing biodiversity in a relatively small area. This is a real hit with animal lovers who enjoy visiting a number of wildlife attractions and conservation sanctuaries, each staffed by expert guides who know and love the animals in their environment.
Drive yourself along the peninsula
To make the most of your time on the coast, we recommend hiring a car and driving yourself. The drive is relatively easy, allowing you to enjoy the beautiful spots and charm of the whole Otago Peninsula.
There are two main routes to get to the far reaches of Taiaroa Head and nearby, where most of the wildlife lingers.
Whichever road you take, you’ll find plenty of opportunities for scenic stops.
You may even like to follow one road in and the other out… if doing so, we recommend driving in on the high road (to make the most of the views) and back on the low road.
Portobello Road – The ‘low road’ coastal route
Portobello Road takes you along the picturesque Otago Harbour and past colourful boat sheds and small townships that make great refreshment stops.
Keep your eyes peeled for action near the water too, as it’s not unusual to spot a sea lion hanging out on the cycle path or even the occasional whale visiting the harbour mouth for a snack.
The ‘high road’
For spectacular sweeping coastal views (and a stop at Larnach Castle or the epic sand dunes of Sandfly Bay), Highcliff Road is a great option.
However, with its twists, turns and steep drop-off, it’s better for more confident drivers – especially in winter.
Let someone else do the driving
If you’d rather sit back and let someone else do the driving while you gaze at the views and enjoy southern hospitality, then you’ll find a number of excellent local tours ready to help.
A few that specialise in wildlife and peninsula highlights with transport from the city, include Iconic Tours, Elm Wildlife Tours, Fantail Tours and Horizon Tours, but there are plenty of others.
Harbour cruises also double as wildlife spotting adventures, and Port to Port Tours and the Monarch Wildlife Tours both provide a different viewpoint from the water.
Wildlife attractions in Dunedin
Whatever animals you visit in Dunedin, there are a couple of things you can to do ensure everyone is safe and happy.
The rule of thumb when viewing wildlife here is to keep your distance and keep quiet.
These are wild animals who get stressed and frightened by people or dogs getting too close.
Plus, some of them can bite when provoked, and nobody wants that.
Royal Albatross Centre
Nestled on the tip of Taiaroa Head, at the end of the Otago Peninsula overlooking the harbour mouth, is the Royal Albatross Colony.
This is the only place in the world where you’ll see northern royal albatross nesting on the mainland.
Depending on the time of year you visit, the headland tour to the observation room affords front-row views to spy on huge fluffy albatross chicks, fledglings testing their wings and/or adult pairs soaring high in the air, showing off their three-metre wing span.
These giant birds are a majestic feat of nature, making a visit to the colony a highlight for many.
What’s more, the cosy visitor centre is full of informative displays and a great café to warm up over a coffee (or a delicious pie).
There’s also the option to extend the standard tour (which is 60 minutes long) to include a tour of Fort Taiaroa. This extends your tour to 90 minutes and gets you closer to the albatross.
We highly recommend upgrading your ticket.
Did you know? The Royal Albatross Centre and Blue Penguins Pukekura are based at the same location. If you’d like to see both, we recommend booking an albatross tour later in the day, so you can stay on to see the blue penguins after dark.
Blue Penguins Pukekura
Pint-sized local hero, the little blue penguin has made a healthy comeback in this area thanks to habitat restoration and conservation efforts.
The happy outcome is the nightly chance to watch these almost cartoon-like critters waddle in from their day of fishing and scurry off to their nests.
Blue Penguins Pukekura is just beneath Taiaroa Head, departing from the same building where the albatross tours are based.
The blue penguin tours leave just before dusk when the penguin parade kicks off.
Occasionally a local predator such as a sea lion or gannet makes an appearance and causes chaos in the ranks, but generally, the march goes smoothly and guests get the benefit of in-depth commentary from the guides.
We loved learning about these gorgeous little guys, and watching their quirky antics.
Just up the hill from the albatross colony, you’ll find Natures Wonders.
This is a working farm, café and wildlife adventure experience all rolled into one.
Owned and operated by the Reid family, who have had this farm for generations, the tour roves all over the rugged property in agile 8-wheel all-terrain Argo vehicles.
Some of the tracks take on precarious angles and more than a few large puddles making it a thrilling journey with gorgeous terrain. You’ll also enjoy 360° views for miles up and down the coast.
However, as exciting as the ride in is, the end goal is the adorable seal pup nursery and penguin nesting areas located down by the waterline.
Specially created hides allow for close-up viewing of the seal pups, whose ink-black eyes stare curiously at visitors.
It’s also not uncommon to glimpse little blue penguins (the world’s smallest) hanging out in their nesting boxes.
This is one fun and thoroughly memorable tour with a good dose classic Kiwi humour along the away.
The Otago Peninsula Eco Restoration Alliance (OPERA) – previously known as Penguin Place
Penguins are certainly a theme in Dunedin and it’s no wonder when one of the rarest and most endangered of the species – the yellow eyed penguin – is a regular resident.
Named hoiho in Māori, these quirky birds live up to their name, which means ‘loud shouter’.
If you’re lucky enough to spot one, you’ll often hear it calling first as it seeks out its mate or chick on the return from the sea.
The Otago Peninsula Eco Restoration Alliance (OPERA) – previously known as Penguin Place – has created both a haven and rehabilitation area for these shy marine birds, who encounter plenty of challenges between the occasional shark bite and near extinction.
You’ll get to see the penguins they’re looking after in the penguin hospital, before venturing down onto the beach in the hopes of spotting them in the wild.
Creep through the hidden tunnels down at the beach to chance a look at one of these endangered penguins.
Sadly, these guys might not be around for too much longer unless numbers start to regenerate miraculously.
But, by supporting the efforts of sanctuaries such as this, you are directly contributing to the conservation of these amazing birds.
While on this tour, you might also have the chance to see little blue penguins in their nests, NZ fur seals and sea lions.
On the other side of Dunedin, high in the hills overlooking Blueskin Bay and a short drive from Port Chalmers, the Orokonui Ecosanctuary is where you’ll find characterful native birds and lizards that once flourished all over Aotearoa.
This serene cloud forest has beautiful native bush walks and prime viewing of cheeky native parrots (kākā), gorgeous tūī, songful bellbirds, fantails and riflemen, which flit among the trees and hover around the feeding stations.
The pre-historic looking takahē strut about when the mood strikes them and tucked away in dark burrows, the sanctuary has a number of tokoeka kiwi (but being nocturnal they aren’t often spotted).
Lizard lovers can check out New Zealand’s own throw-back to the age of the dinosaurs, the tuatara (though interestingly, these aren’t actually classified as lizards), or the jaunty colours of the jewelled geckos.
You’re free to walk the trails at Orokonui Ecosanctuary at your own pace, but we highly recommend joining a guided tour. They’re super affordable and the insight you’ll gain into the local animals and vegetation is invaluable.
Dunedin: City comforts and wild surrounds
A few days in Dunedin will allow you to take in the region’s exceptional wildlife, scenery and fascinating historical sights.
In between viewing penguins, albatross and marine life, there are plenty of great eateries, bars and cultural experiences to partake in, allowing you to enjoy all your creature comforts, as well as the creatures themselves.
This post was brought to you by Enterprise Dunedin – the Dunedin experts. It was written by Sarah Bramhall, in collaboration with Sarah Chant, following a trip we made to the peninsula.